Mon
Jun 5 2017 1:00pm

Review: The End of Temperance Dare by Wendy Webb

Haunting and atmospheric, The End of Temperance Dare by Wendy Webb is another thrilling page-turner from the Queen of the Northern Gothic (available June 6, 2017).

Crime beat journalist Eleanor “Norrie” Harper has been fired from her job after being diagnosed with PTSD and letting it affect her work—although she’s skeptical of the PTSD diagnosis. After all, it’s not like she’s involved in the crimes. She’s just working the fringes, witnessing the crime scenes and the aftermath of violent crime, and meeting the families of victims at their most vulnerable moments.

Either way, she’s at loose ends until she applies for and is offered the coveted directorship of the beautiful Cliffside Manor, an artist retreat (and former TB sanatorium) run by the venerable Penelope Dare. Eleanor is excited and nervous, but when she arrives, she has a bad feeling:

A whisper of cold air slithered up the legs of my pants and down the collar of my shirt as I scurried down the hallway toward Miss Penny’s office, which now, I knew, would be mine. I reached the door, stepped inside, and shut it behind me with a thud, my heart racing in my chest. Get it together, Eleanor, I said to myself.

But just then, a wave of nausea passed through me so powerful that it knocked me to my knees. My head began to pound and I sat there for I don’t know how long, with my face in my hands, waiting for whatever it was to pass. That would be all I’d need, to come down with some kind of illness now.

If Eleanor thought her first day would get any better, she was wrong. Cliffside is beautiful, and the staff is lovely—especially Harriet, the head of housekeeping, and her husband. But when Miss Penny herself is found dead on her bed, suicide note in hand, Eleanor is thrown into the fire feet first, days away from the arrival of her first round of fellows.

Harriet is convinced that Penelope would never kill herself, but the note is pretty clear. It also refers to the death of her brother and sister years before, which was ruled an accident even though Eleanor always suspected otherwise. When Eleanor arrives back in her room, she finds another note from Penelope. This one refers to a puzzle that Eleanor must solve, along with what seems to be a threat:

In closing, Eleanor Harper, about whom I have thought so much and so often over the past twenty-three-odd years, I’ll say this: The last line of my suicide note says that my nightmare is over. And, by now, it is. Yours, however, is just beginning.

Sweet dreams, 
Eleanor.

Meanwhile, as Eleanor and the staff rush around getting ready for the fellows’ arrival, Eleanor keeps experiencing odd occurrences throughout the house and on the grounds. She spots children playing outside her window, but when she confronts Harriet about it, Harriet insists there were no children on the ground. Then, at night, she hears the pitter-patter of little child feet on the upper floors. The discovery of a playroom with a dollhouse replica of Cliffside Manor doesn’t help either:

But it was the enormous wooden dollhouse that drew me in. I stared at it for a few moments before I realized—it was an exact replica of Cliffside.

I sat down in front of it and peered inside. There was the drawing room on the main floor, complete with its marble entryway. Dolls were positioned in a group in the drawing room and more were seated at the table in the dining room. In the kitchen, a doll was standing at the stove. I gingerly reached into the room and picked it up. It wore the same kind of black dress and shoes as Harriet. I shuddered and put it back in its place.

On the second floor of the dollhouse, there were dolls in the bedrooms—one was painting, another was seated at a tiny typewriter, a third stretched out on a bed. The fellows of Cliffside, here on an artistic retreat. There was even the director’s office with a doll seated at a desk. And there was my suite of rooms with a male doll nestled into a big armchair in front of the fireplace. Chester Dare?

On the third floor, a replica of the suite of rooms in which I was sitting, complete with two dolls in front of a tiny replica of the dollhouse itself. Penelope and Chamomile.

I shook my head, in awe of the painstaking detail work someone had undertaken to make a miniature version of Cliffside, so that two children could control the comings and goings of everyone within it. In a sense, it made young Penelope and Chamomile into gods, peering into the lives of everyone within those walls, manipulating their actions, calling all the shots.

Luckily, the fellows are more than happy to help unravel the mysteries of the Manor, but even they’re hiding more than a few secrets of their own. Wendy Webb is a pro at providing all the trappings of a good Gothic mystery, and even though readers will probably guess at a few of the secrets early on, it’s a fun read nonetheless. The old-fashioned ghostly scares are a nice juxtaposition against the contemporary cast of characters and with Eleanor herself, who is as modern as they come.

 

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Kristin Centorcelli reviews books at mybookishways.com, loves a good mystery, and is a huge fan of boxed wine. You can also follow her at @mybookishways.

Read all posts by Kristin Centorcelli for Criminal Element.

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